April 3, 2013

India: The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

Have you read my final thoughts on India? They're here.

And, as promised, here's our first official country wrap-up, where we'll share the best of the best, the worst of the worst, and the things we still can't reconcile in our heads. We're calling this, 'The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!" But, we'll start with "The Bad," then move on to "The 'Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!'" and end with "The Good." You should always end things on a high note, right?

The Bad

The Busses
They were usually terrifying and we took them only when it was the only option. The drivers were absolutely insane and overly aggressive, and we were told by many locals that the drivers often drive for 2-3 days straight with only a few hours of sleep between trips. It was even hinted at more than a few times that many of the drivers have a few drinks behind the wheel. So, with that in mind, we limited our bus trips and white-knuckled it when we couldn't avoid it.

The Trash
It's everywhere. There's no end to it. There's plastic and styrofoam and food scraps. The animals eat it. It's in the gutters. It's in the streets. It's lining the path to your guesthouse. In fact, there may only be a few times in your entire time in India when you CAN'T see loads of garbage. And that's heart breaking. Though, in truth, it's not as if we, as Westerners, are creating any less garbage than the Indians. In fact, we're probably creating more. We're just hiding it away. And I'm not convinced that's ecologically better. Even so, it makes for an unpleasant experience, which leads to the next thing on my list...

The Smells
The smell was the first thing that hit me when we got to India. Vehicle exhaust, animals, sweat, poop, and garbage, both fresh and burning. It was the smell of the burning garbage that permeated my nose the most, and it never went away. People burn garbage in the cities, in the villages, and in the country. They burn plastic and styrofoam and anything that will melt or turn to ashes. So, not only does it smell, you can't stop the voice in your head telling you that the fumes from the burning plastic are toxic. Thanks, India!

Police Shake Down on New Year's Eve
While Pushkar is on our list of "The Good," one particular experience from Pushkar is on our naughty list, and that's our camel-riding "Shitty New Year's Eve"  I didn't mind the poop bread. (It was super tasty.) I didn't mind the fire fueled by dung. (It's better than plastic.) And, generally, we both had a great time that night. The thing that gets it on "The Bad" list is the late night appearance of some very corrupt cops. We knew that there was some major police corruption in India, but we hadn't dealt with it personally, so we were a little intimidated when they showed up in the middle of the desert toting ancient rifles and smug attitudes. Luckily, it turned out alright, but it definitely earns a spot on this list.

Typical "queue"
I put this in quotes because, while they may call it "queuing" in India, there's really no such thing. (For our American pals unaware, "queuing" is just a fancy way of saying "lining up" or "standing in line.") You can stand in a line, but you'll still need to shove, kick, and block to achieve your goal. You may be appalled by the aggressiveness at first but, after a few weeks, you'll join the pushy masses and shin-kick the next guy who tries to cut in front of you for a samosa. And you'll feel good about it.

Amoebic Dysentery
Maybe this should be higher on the list of bad experiences. It was pretty miserable and I have nothing to add to the story, so you can read about it here. It was awful. I lost 10 pounds in a week. (If you wanted to, you could probably play a game with the photos from our trip. "Before Dysentery? Or After Dysentery?") What you haven't read about is all the (several) other times Tom or I needed antibiotics to fight off a bit of Delhi Belly. It was never serious and we dealt with it, but you have to be careful in India. It's not just the food cleanliness that becomes an issue. It's the close contact with SO.MANY.PEOPLE every day. We rarely ate meat or fresh fruits and vegetables and we washed our hands and used anti-bac constantly. And we still got sick. Luckily, we kind of feel like our stomachs are made of steel now, and southeast Asia hasn't affected our India-trained tummies at all. 

It's hard to say that you didn't like a certain destination. But I think we'll go ahead and add a few places to our dislike list. This doesn't meant that you wouldn't enjoy it there. It's just that these are the places we least enjoyed. And maybe, if you go there, you should plan things differently than we did. Maybe you'll enjoy them. Maybe not. (I'm leaning towards "not." We're pretty forgiving people and enjoy almost everywhere. These places just weren't their effort.)
  • Ranthambore, Rajasthan: Or, as Tom calls it, "Ranthamboring." The town (Sawai Madhopur) is dumpy and unimpressive. The process to get tickets is insane. There's an absurd amount of corruption by the park rangers. It's stupid and inefficient and Tom almost lost his shit on the people there. (See "Queuing," above.) We went on 3 overpriced safaris in hopes of seeing the Bengal Tiger. The most impressive animal we saw was a male deer. A DEER! We live in the United States where the deer population is out of control. We were not impressed. 
  • Jaipur, Rajasthan: Despite having the Best Guesthouse in India run by the nicest family ever, in the history of the world, we didn't really care for Jaipur. It's a big, dusty city with lots of hustlers and little redeeming charm. Hawa Mahal is pretty, but not as pretty as the pictures you've been seeing of it. And the rest? Palaces, forts, and lakes? Fine. But every town or city in Rajasthan has a palace, a fort, and a lake. And they come with charm.
  • Delhi: Again, though we had a fantastic time at our friend's wedding in Delhi, the rest of Delhi was pretty dismal. It's a massive city with a high crime rate, a troublesome level of poverty, and a gritty feel that exhausts you the moment you walk out the door. 

The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

It's no secret that India deals with some extreme poverty. With 1.2 billion people, that's hardly surprising. But it's the blind eye towards this poverty that is especially difficult to accept. The rich live on roads where the poor and (sometimes intentionally) disfigured beg. There seem to be very few programs for these people and, usually, even the individuals in the worst situations are just ignored. I know our own country has some issues of this kind to resolve, but we're considerably further ahead than India. (Anyone who wants to argue about the existence of social welfare programs might change their mind if they see what the absence of these programs actually looks like.) As a tourist, I noticed that I was even becoming blind to the extreme situation. At first, when a child would beg from me, with their big eyes pleading to me and their hand clinching my shirt, I would barely be able to keep the tears at bay. (Nearly everyone agrees that giving money directly to the people on the street is a bad idea.) But then, over time, I started to ignore them. And then I would congratulate myself on ignoring them and not being affected. And then I would feel awful for congratulating myself for IGNORING A POOR CHILD! And then I hated myself and India at the same time. It's an awful reality there and, while poverty is present all over the world and you may experience it anywhere you travel, the difference is that, in India, it never goes away. You'll be approached by beggars 10-15 times each day. You'll pass by slums and shanty towns that make your stomach turn. While I love India, it was sometimes very difficult to reconcile the love I had for the country with my frustration and disgust with the local people and government for allowing this level of poverty to exist, particularly amongst children.

Women Problems
So, this is a tough thing to talk about because I, by no means, want to stereotype against all Indians or Indian men. The vast majority of the people we met were kind and considerate and respectful. But, few people can deny that there is a serious issue with women's rights and the way women are generally treated in India. A major problem. And being a tourist does not make you exempt from those issues. In this post, I hinted that I had been groped a bit, but I downplayed it so that our friends and family wouldn't freak out, and also because I was still completely overwhelmed by the situation. What really happened was that, while we stood in a massive crowd of happy visitors watching the Mysore parade for Dasara, a guy who had been standing next to me for over an hour looked straight in my eyes, smiled, and then grabbed my crotch. No. I'm not joking. It was daylight. I was standing next to Tom. The grab was blatant. It was as if he thought I would be happy about it, because he showed no shame at all and actually seemed shocked when I started crying and shaking. Now, you may be thinking, "I would have punched him." And maybe you would have. But you really don't know how you would act. We'd been in India for about 10 days. We were in a crowd of millions and we were the only foreigners in sight. It was intimidating and I felt completely unempowered. Instead, when Tom saw me crying and asked why, I moved to stand in front of him and told him I'd tell him later. I was too afraid to tell him. I thought he would punch the guy and I didn't know what would happen in this crowd if he did. The grabber disappeared into the crowd and I told Tom what had happened. He was, obviously, as angry as I was upset, and we turned to leave the crowd. As we did, at least 3 or 4 hands reached out and grabbed my butt. It was all too much. I felt so vulnerable and violated.

I wish I could say that was the end of this kind of behavior in India. It wasn't. Nothing SO brazen happened again, but I did get my butt grabbed at least 5 more times, and there were lots of "accidental brush against" situations that may or may not have been accidents. Even when I wasn't being physically assaulted (because that's what it is), the looks and comments I got from men were disgusting. And these stares weren't curious or even just appreciative. They were menacing and dirty. I never felt as if I was in danger. But I felt disgusted and abused. Luckily, after the incident in Mysore, I had also grown braver and stronger, and I was soon publicly berating these men (whether they grabbed or just stared), and that helped a lot. They always backed down and acted like the dogs they were. But my fairly manageable situation made me really examine the greater problem in India with women. We were there when the "Delhi Rape Case" happened. We saw the insensitive newspaper headlines. We heard the opinions of many Indians. Everyone we met denounced the actions, of course. But many of them saw the solution to the problem as lying with the woman. "Women shouldn't be out that late." "We have to help women protect themselves." The proposed legislation in the immediate aftermath of this case included making girls' already very modest school uniforms more conservative. Very rarely did someone talk about teaching men not to rape instead of teaching women not to get raped. And, while it's great that Indians and people around the world were outraged about this poor woman's horrible rape and murder, the truth is that this is just one isolated incident in a larger culture of female abuse. Within two weeks of the publicized gang rape, we heard of at least three other gang rapes that happened in India. In one case, when the woman reported her rape, the police officers raped her again. In another case, the gang rape was of a 10 year old girl who was then beheaded. Other times, we heard about how common it is for wives to be murdered by their husbands and their husband's families when they don't get the additional dowry they demand. After the highly public case in Delhi, many Indians we talked to lamented that it wasn't fair that India was being seen in this light - that India has so many great characteristics. And it does. But it IS fair for India to be seen this way because it is happening. It is happening a lot. And, from what we saw, the societal shift towards better treatment of women is happening, but far too slowly. If they're groping me in public, when I'm standing next to my husband, how are they treating their own wives at home? And who is standing up for that woman?

Ugh...With that...let's talk about truly Incredible India!

The Good

The Food
A thali
We hardly ate any meat in India. This restriction was partly because we didn't always trust the cleanliness of the places we dined, but it's also because Indian food uses vegetables in the most delicious way. Aloo...gobi...palak...Yes please! We also LOVED Indian breakfasts and really enjoyed having curry first thing each morning, which surprised us. We can't wait to get home and make appam or poori bhaji! Mmmmm...and the thalis! 

Being out of our element
Before we left on our trip, this was something I was both looking forward to and afraid of. Little did I know, now that we're in Southeast Asia where things are so much easier for travelers and it's more difficult to get off the beaten path, we miss that oh-my-god-this-is-insane feeling we had in India. In India, we never got bored because each and every day hour was a surprise. And that's terrifying/exciting/awful/amazing!

The People
It sounds cliche, I know, but we really did meet some fantastic Indians on our travels - people who were kind to us, gave us directions, took care of us when we were sick, or even helped us push our way forward in line.

Masala Chai!
You love coffee, right? And you never want to be apart from it? You can't imagine how you'll spend 3.5 months either not having it or sipping crappy instant granules? I hear you. I love the beans, too. But chai has won my heart. And not the kind you get at Starbucks (WTF is a Chai Tea Latte?!?!) or Panera Bread. I'm talking about the good stuff. The milk masala chai with the perfect blend of spices still floating in the cup and the little film on the surface from the boiled milk they use. I'm talking about the kind you can buy on the side of the street in a "disposable" clay cup for 10 rupees (18 cents or so) or from a chai wallah on a train. Have you had that? No? Get thee to India...stat! You need this stuff.

The Head Bobble
It can't be explained. Only experienced. It's the best. And we already miss it.

Our Visitors
We were super lucky to get visits from some of our favorite people while we were in India. First, we had Tom's mom, Maria, join us in Delhi and McLeod Ganj, and it was awesome having her. I'm one of those people who adores her mother-in-law, so spending time with her in an exotic place was super fun. Towards the end of our time in India, our friends, Emily and Anna, were heading to Kerala for their honeymoon and we met up with them. Seeing our good friends was so comforting and fun, and we had SO much fun with them in MumbaiKumarakom, and Thodupuzha.

The Structure of Chaos
In a country of 1.2 billion people, everything is a competition. Every single day, every Indian deals with the fact that there are millions of people who would happily take his or her job if they could. This level of competitiveness spills into every aspect of life in India - from getting a rickshaw, to scoring riders for your rickshaw, to finding a seat on the train. The number of people on the streets at any given moment is staggering. In cities and even larger towns, the streets are so crowded that I wouldn't advise even the most experienced American driver to brave them. Yet, it somehow works and, usually, without any real aggression. People yell at times and honk a lot (which is less a sign of aggression and more to alert other drivers of their presence), and there is a lot of cutting off and overpassing. Yet, we never once saw people getting angry or truly aggressive with each other. Somehow, the chaos works! It's amazing!

Train Travel
Even though I had one of the worst nights of my life on a train, we have to say that the train travel in India is stellar. It's easy, it's convenient and vast, it's (relatively) clean, and we took at least 15 train rides in our 3.5 months there. We told you about it in this post, and it's still true. We love train travel in India.

The Other Travelers
India is tough. It's intense and hectic and overwhelming. This can be awesome, but it can also suck. And, as much as I'm trying to explain the strange dichotomy of India in this post, most of you won't truly understand. The only people who could really understand are other backpackers who've traveled long-term in India on a budget. They understand how you can both hate it and love it. When you share your stories about the time you lost your shit in the middle of a Delhi street, they nod their head knowingly and share their own end-of-the-rope story. There are backpackers all over the world, but it's not the same. We met some fantastic people on our trip - a few of whom we sincerely hope we'll keep in touch. But, even if we don't, it was still a gift to have met them. I think we were all something to each other in those days that can't be satisfied by any other person or experience. To be surrounded by people who not only understand your crazy plans to travel for a year, but applaud them is awesome. And these people don't expect you to love every moment. And you don't feel guilty for telling them when you're NOT enjoying it. You're not ungrateful...you're just human. But only these people can understand your human emotions surrounding India. So, for these people, we are indebted. We hope we provided the same kind of comfort and love to some of you.
Some yoga pals in Arambol, Goa

The colors!
Before we went to India, I watched an Anthony Bourdain episode where he said something like, "I don't understand. Some of these people are living in thatch huts with dirt floors and no running water. They are incredibly poor and can sometimes barely feed themselves. How are they keeping their colors SO BRIGHT?!?!" He wasn't trying to be insulting or even funny. I didn't know what he meant until we were in India and, more specifically, in Rajasthan. The colors everywhere are stunning - flowers and shopfronts and turbans and the magnificent saris. In India, it's not a bad thing to wear 5 different patterns and colors at once. It's gorgeous.

India brought out some incredible confidence in me and I hope that doesn't go away entirely. I know it won't stay with me 100% - in fact, in Southeast Asia, where we are now and things are so easy, some of it is already gone because it's just not required. But I am holding tight to what remains of that certainty and confidence. Tom even said several times in India that he loved what it brought out in me. (For example, when I told off this cab driver in Mumbai.)

We picked up some beautiful things in India. The prices are low (for us) and the quality is high. Because everything is so competitive and because families stay in the same industries for generations, the skill of the craftspeople is incredible. We picked up rugs, pashminas, glass lamps, patchwork handbags, leather goods, shoes, jewelry and a ton of other goodies. (It was all shipped home.) We can't wait to rediscover it all when we get back to SF!

While the journey was almost always interesting and enjoyable, a few particular destinations and events stand out in our mind as tops.
  • Hampi, Karnataka: There are 3-4 posts about Hampi...so click through all of them if you want. Hampi was just perfect for us and we think it's a must for any India explorers.
  • Yoga in Arambol, Goa: Stopping for a few weeks to practice Iyengar yoga was one of the best experiences we've had on the road. It gave us a daily structure and an appreciation for yoga that we didn't have before. And ending each long day of yoga with a swim in the sea isn't the worst things in the world.
  • Indian Wedding: Few non-Indians ever get to go to an Indian wedding, so we were excited when our friend, Nakul, invited us to his in Delhi. What was even better than seeing the beautiful and amazing ceremonies (and donning spectacular clothes) was meeting Nakul and Kunjan's fantastic families and feeling at home for the weekend. 
  • McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh: Love. 100% Love. I hope we'll visit India again some time, and McLeod Ganj would be the place I would most want to revisit. For me, it was bliss. And getting a dose of Tibetan culture in the middle of our Indian trip was great, too.
  • Pushkar, Rajasthan: Pushkar is one of those places on every backpacker's radar. It's a hot spot for young vagabonders and aging hippies and, based on that assessment, I wasn't sure we would love it. But we did. We stayed for almost 2 weeks, spending Christmas and New Year's Eve perusing its quiet and colorful streets. (and shopping!)
  • Kerala: The tagline for Kerala Tourism advertising is "God's Own Country" and we couldn't agree more. It's green. It's peaceful. It's the India you haven't seen before. There are no camels or sandy deserts. Instead, there's beautiful coastline, elephants, and lush backwaters. 
  • Taj Mahal: I mean, it's THE TAJ MAHAL!!!
  • Ranakpur Jain Temple outside Udaipur: To me, this was every bit as impressive as the Taj Mahal. When I entered it, I was silenced by its beauty. 

Make sure you check out our video round-up of some of our favorite photos! (Click here or watch below.)


  1. Very well written. An honest appraisal without bias.

    1. great, yet nothing new! this is life. Enjoy the Angkor Wat!

    2. I agree with debu ... you have written honestly and very well.I have yet to understand my own country fully myself ... its so diverse. The way some of these morons misbehave with women, the filth, the corruption ... its really sad. Well I guess the number of idiots is more than the number of nice people in this country. We need to have more nice people.

    3. Thanks Ravinder! But I have to slightly disagree. There are certainly more nice people than there are idiots. Don't be too hard on your country - it's a great place!

  2. Wow, just wow.

    Sorry I can't get past the treating of women and more importantly you in this case. I think you were smart not to tell Tom right away, I am sure he didn't like it at the time, but maybe saved from bigger issues. EmSue was groped just once and only a small squeeze on her waist and I about lost it with the guy; I can't imagine.

    Like I said before when we heard how long y'all stayed in India I knew then y'all were stronger India travelers than us :).

    I do however absolutely agree with it making you stronger, by the time we left India my BS buffer was 0 and I let it be known to anyone I disagreed or had conflict with.

    1. It was definitely tough at times, but I think it may turn out to be one of the best experiences of our lives!

  3. yea i could understand and picture most these destinations/situations,balanced assesment,as an indian i agree.to move around india u have to be young,i feel sad when i see old couples trying to explore this country,so difficult.

    1. Hi Harpal! We definitely felt that we were enjoying it more because we're young (29 and 36). The logistics of India can be tough!

  4. Very well articulated. An objective view of India which needs to be understood by we Indians. Yes, we do have some people whose behaviour is unpardonable. But then India is vast, diverse and incredible. Generally speaking the people in the villages and smaller towns are more 'cultured' than those in cities and metros. Even though 35 days is too short a span, you have done more than justice to your stay here. Having spent more than double that many years, a lot continues to baffle us.

    Thanks once again for the excellent write up.

    1. Thanks so much! We were actually in India for 3.5 months...about 110 days. It's certainly just an introductory to the country - it's so vast and diverse! I hope you had a chance to read our other India wrap-up (which covers my journey from being overwhelmed to loving India). http://www.looseoflimits.com/2013/04/india-revisited.html

  5. Very interesting; good to hear a foreigners point of view, that too a lady.
    Guess you are about 80% OK. Surely it should induce us Indians to improve ourselves.

    1. Oh, we're 100% okay! We loved India. And I hope that we're all always striving to improve ourselves. I sure feel that way when the errors of my own country are pointed out. India's not unique in having societal issues. And I do honestly believe that most Indians are making efforts to move beyond these particular issues.

  6. A honest travelogue which I hope will prepare others who visit India. Thank you for your honesty and grace in forgiving those who trespassed against you.

    Hope that your next experience is better and your negatives or some of them a bit more positive. Aggressive and confident body language will help ward of some evil.

    1. Thanks Walsingham! We will certainly have a "next experience" some day and I'm sure it will be a great one!

  7. Happy Birthday Stephanie! I have so enjoyed your tales of India. On the edge. of. my. seat. for all that SE Asia brings you!

  8. I know, its a pretty consistent review with the places you have visited and the sights you have seen. Just wish you spend more time on your next trip and N-joi its positives. Welcome to India!

    Srinivas Reddy